Men And Women In Love: The View From Classic Hollywood
Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the 1930s and Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in the 1960s present a vivid cultural memory for reflecting on the timeless mysteries of men and women in love. Over the years film critics and movie fans alike have given high marks for the compelling quality of the romantic relationships dramatized in these films as the two couples manage to make the pieces of the love and marriage puzzle fit together.
Puzzle pieces marked “character,” “cultural era,” “social norms,” “moral choices,” and "family connections" are seen here. Let us explore these cinematic puzzle pieces, beginning with a look at each film’s cultural landscape.
Along the way, let us keep in mind how these films can help the rising generation to confront some of the realities of men and women in love that are obscured in our postmodern culture.
These films made three decades apart, consistently gain critical praise from two completely opposing groups: Critics and fans who applaud the sexual revolution and those who deeply regret it.
Classic Film Cultural Landscapes and Today’s Sexual Landscape
The social and moral norms that once culturally connected love, sex and marriage have been disappearing in civil society and on film for over half a century. The contemporary focus for many relationships today is on the side of each individual’s autonomy and emotional state in the moment.
A different sexual ethic is seen in these two romantic comedies, one made in the midst of the depression era and the other in 1963, the brief period of transition before the onset of the sexual revolution. Excellence in dialogue, direction and performance might offer world-weary young people a cinematic opportunity to rediscover the beauty of committed love in these classic love stories.
The Character Puzzle Piece
In the world of classic movies, the Character puzzle piece is almost always the biggest piece of all. The characters in the greatest classic movies present compelling portraits of our human condition. Through the genius of Frank Capra in 1934, and Robert Mulligan in 1963 we can take a refreshing look at the universal longing for connection and authentic love, timelessly observed in human nature. In these character-driven romantic comedies we encounter human beings portrayed as united in body and soul with visible and compelling powers of reason, memory, imagination, free will and moral choice in play. The audience sees each of the four characters “up close and personal” as whole persons, struggling to confront and resolve perennial issues of love and life.
The Cultural Era Puzzle Piece
In the famous bus scene, director Frank Capra brings to life a bright vignette of cultural history. Ellie and Peter are on the second stage of their journey from Florida to New York. The scene features everyone on the bus singing all the verses of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” This scene provides a cultural reminder of what genuine community looks like; a time when people of all ages and backgrounds grew up singing songs that were passed on from one generation to the next.
In Love with the Proper Stranger we are witnessing, three decades later a culture on the brink of the sexual revolution. As with so many men and women today, Angie and Rocky are asking the question of whether it is even possible to find lasting love. Natalie Wood's character, Angie, ponders:
"That’s what love is – bells and banjos playing? How they brainwash you! And here I spend my whole life like a nut waiting for what? A stranger"
The Social Norm Puzzle Piece
Ellie and Peter live in an era still shaped by cultural, social and moral norms that linked sexual attraction to love, courtship and marriage. The “Walls of Jericho” scenes capture the flavor of the social norms and boundaries operating in the day. Ellie and Peter spend the night in the same motel room separated by a blanket strung over a rope. Peter uses the biblical phrase, “Walls of Jericho,” to describe the blanket he places between them. He reassures Ellie that the blanket is as invincible as his intentions are honorable.
By the time Love with the Proper Stranger appears in 1963, the sexual revolution is underway and the film depicts the norms as weakened, but still operating in the culture. Steve McQueen’s Rocky makes a surprisingly self-aware assessment of the arrangement he has with his girlfriend.
It is a relationship of utility, and director Mulligan wants the audience to see it that way. Rocky’s girlfriend (Edie Adams) mentions being in love and he gives a harsh and cynical response: “Yeah – you with yourself, and me with myself.” From the point of view of the film, there is no false sentimentality about this utilitarian relationship.
The Family Connections Puzzle Piece
We see how family members play an essential role as each of these film stories unfold. Consider how, by contrast, contemporary romantic films tend to focus on just the relationship of the couple, disconnected from family and community.
Young people today do not especially think or their families as part of the equation when they are evaluating the person of interest in their life. In these films, a more complete picture of life as it really is comes into focus. We are made as social beings and not autonomous selves. So family, right or wrong, dynamic or dysfunctional, is part of all our lives.
The Moral Choices Puzzle Piece
In keeping with the cultural era in which it appeared, the moral choices to be made in It Happened One Night are straightforward and classically presented. The idea that human beings are expected to use their powers of free will in a virtuous way is taken for granted. This is the era of the depression and the film reflects a mid-1930s focus on wealth and class related issues. Clark Gable’s character, Peter, must measure up by upholding the virtuous standard of principle over greed. Peter assures Ellie’s father that he is not interested in the reward money and that he loves her. Capra’s films always put “people over things” and his cinematic vision is evident when Ellie’s wealthy father tries to persuade his daughter to choose Peter and true love over a life of superficial materialism.
Young people, struggling to make sense of their lives in a toxic culture, can gain clarity watching Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen confronting the moral choice they cannot avoid. They make the life choice not to have an abortion. This is one of the most compelling scenes in film history, especially in light of the sexual revolution about to explode just a few years later.
The film treats the pivotal scene concerning the prospective abortion with classic realism. Director Mulligan presents the audience with stark images that convey the moral choices that the characters must make.
Love with the Proper Stranger : A Culture on the Edge of the Sexual Revolution
When Rocky offers to marry Angie just to make things "Okay," she rejects his offer. What Angie wants is a man who genuinely wants to marry her for herself. Rocky's journey goes from wanting to marry Angie out of a sense of obligation to realizing that he truly does love her.
Experiencing the sights and the sounds of these two films, we take in images and ideas about men and women in love seldom seen in the popular culture of today. We can always debate the pluses and the minuses with facts and statistics on the cultural outcomes of the sexual revolution. On the other hand, consider the studies in neuroscience that confirm how storytelling lights up our brains, not to speak of warming our hearts. It would seem that one of the most pleasant and ultimately effective ways to rediscover the beauty of authentic love is through the medium of the imagination.
Why do these films, featuring couples making deeply moral choices, earn the loyalty of fans and critics across generations, worldviews and tribal lines? In an era dominated by group identity politics, the curse of postmodernism has not yet descended on Classic Hollywood. Young people can search for transcendent and poetic truths in classic film free of the distractions of political correctness.
Do we have an innate and universal longing for transcendence in our hearts? As Al Kresta argues,
“Transcendence is the sense that humans and life are more than matter in motion, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its particular parts. Is the longing for transcendence a human pathology, or is it natural to us”